Directed & Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
I. Love. Whiplash. This was absolutely my favorite film of 2014. It was smart and funny and brilliantly made. Since it’s 5 well earned Oscar nominations were announced (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mixing) Whiplash has made a second lap in theaters and has a slightly wider release than its original run in the fall. I wish Whiplash was given as many showtimes as something like American Sniper because it has probably an equal audience appeal and is a far better film.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neimann, a young musician at a Juliard-esque school in New York City. He is driven to the edge of madness and obsession by his own determination to achieve greatness and the tyranny of a prestigious instructor played by J.K. Simmons. Whiplash weaves humor, dramatic tension, and an intellectually stimulating premise into this tight 2 hour film about two very unlikeable characters; Andrew is singularly focused on his own pretentious ambitions while Terrence Fletcher (played by Simmons) is a bully specializing in public humiliation.
There are so many things to praise in Whiplash but I have to start with the acting. Miles Teller delivers one of the most overlooked performances of 2014. In the same way that Sarah Paulson’s performance in 12 Years a Slave was passed over, Miles Teller has been forgotten. There would have been no room in the Best Actor category to truly consider him but he does some really great work here. He migrates these peaks and valleys of Andrew’s determination for perfection beautifully and gives a hell of a physical performance as well.
J.K. Simmons is a powerhouse slinging every degrading phrase you could think of (and more) at his students. Yet, he is not being showered with praise for these larger, explosive moments; it is his ability to contrast them with just two scenes of authentic vulnerability. If you’re betting money on the Oscars this year, go all in on J.K. Simmons winning Best Supporting Actor. He’s a solid choice.
Acting aside, even from a technical perspective Whiplash was beautifully made. The cinematography was great, lots of swish-pans and close ups in just the right moments. it’s especially powerful when you see the blood from Andrew’s hands dripping onto the drum set, his sweat dancing off of the symbols. Perhaps what really made the cinematography pop was the way it was pieced together by the editor. Especially during the musical sequences, the editing was nearly perfect; snapping to close-ups, matching the rhythm of the song that was being played. A brilliantly shot film can be completely spoiled at the hands of a bad editor; Whiplash is set at a pace that heightened the tension and propelled the story forward. I cannot praise the editing enough.
If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve heard the quote: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. The film makes it crystal clear that Fletcher’s teaching methods are the very definition of abusive, but brings into question whether that abuse is warranted if it results in tremendous talent. We live in a society that worships legends, but are the means by which they became those legends justified? Would we have mega-talented performers if they had drawn a hard line between dedication and obsession? It’s an interesting question for all of us to ponder, but artists and musicians will find this especially stimulating.
Final Verdict: Go see Whiplash. Very rarely is a film capable of capturing that magical balance of audience appeal, story complexity, and technically striking filmmaking, and Whiplash has done just that. It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, it’s sincere, and it is beautiful to watch. For just a taste of one of the best scenes in the movie take a look at this clip of Andrew and his family around the dinner table. Fucking brilliant. On top of all of this, Whiplash goes out with a bang on one of the most kick-ass endings to a film I’ve scene in a long time.
Awards Prospects: Earlier this month I was sitting in front of my computer watching the announcement of the Oscar Nominations and literally pulled a muscle in my arm cheering when Whiplash got nominated for Best Picture. It doesn’t have a chance in the world of winning (the Oscars are as political as…well… politics), but it I am thrilled to see it nominated. Like I said before, J.K. Simmons is almost guaranteed to win for Best Supporting Actor; I am less familiar with the likely winner for the Best Adapted Screenplay category (also, I’m fairly sure they are considering Whiplash ‘adapted’ because it was adapted from the original short that Damien Chazelle made previously; does that really count as ‘adapted’? Whatever). I’d love to see Tom Cross win for editing the film, but right now it’s looking like the likely winner in that category is Boyhood. Truthfully, despite Whiplash being a Sundance favorite in 2014, it could have easily been edged out of the Oscars by larger films; so, I am just thrilled to see it nominated.